Happy Leap Day!

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February-29th-CalendarOnce upon a time, there was no such thing as the month of February. Februarius, as it was originally called, was invented around 700 BC by Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome. The month was named for Februa, a festival of purification probably originating from Sabine culture. (The Sabines were one of many tribes that lived in ancient Italy) Februa fell on February 15. Even then, February had 28 days, although most months had an odd number of days because that was believed to be lucky.

Because the calendar was 355 days, which is not the exact same length as the solar year, it was necessary to sometimes add a month between February and March, known as the mensis intercalaris. (As a side note, Plutarch, a famous writer in the first century, referred to the intercalary month as Mercedonius.) Years with that extra month would be 377 or 378 days. But the system had its shortcomings. Evidently, the decision about which years needed an extra month was often made for political reasons, allowing political officials to stay in office for an extra month. And the common people didn’t necessarily know ahead of time, with the result that it was hard to keep track of the date. Clearly, calendar reform was in order.

The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in the year now known as 46 B.C. That particular year is called the Year of Confusion because he made the year 445 days long in order to put all the seasons back where they belong in the calendar. Then, in 45 B.C., things were back on track with a 365-day year. Even then, there was such as thing as leap day, owing to the fact that the Earth actually takes about 365.25 days to orbit the sun. But “about” isn’t good enough. Every year, a discrepancy of 11 minutes and 14 seconds was added.

By 1582, this discrepancy had added up so much that Pope Gregory XIII solved it by deleting ten days during October. It was also Pope Gregory XIII who determined that February was the month to gain an extra day during leap year. He was even responsible for the terms “leap year” and “leap day”.  In order to keep that discrepancy from continuing to occur, leap day no longer occurs in years ending with 00 unless they are divisible by 400. Thus, 2000 was a leap year, but 1900 was not and 2100 will not be. This results in leap years occurring at the right frequency to keep the average length of the year accurate… almost. The Gregorian calendar still has an extra 26 seconds per year.

February 29 St BrigidBecause of its infrequency, a number of legends and customs have arisen around leap day. According to Irish legend, St. Brigid and St. Patrick agreed that on leap day, women can propose to men. In some parts of Europe in the middle ages, if a man refuses a woman’s proposal on leap day, he must buy her twelve pairs of gloves to hide the embarrassment of her lack of an engagement ring. In Scotland, it is supposedly unlucky to be born on leap day, and in Greece, it is unlucky to get married on leap day, or even in a leap year.

Whatever you do to celebrate this extra day in the calendar, have a happy leap day!

A History of Santa Claus

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My favorite holiday has always been Christmas, and I think I’m in the majority in that regard. The ubiquity of Christmas decorations and Christmas music testifies to that. If you live in Western culture and you’ve ever gone shopping, driven through downtown streets, watched television, or turned on a radio in the month of December, you know exactly what I mean. Christmas-related symbols such as the nativity scene, Christmas trees, and Santa Claus, are universally recognizable, if not quite universally used.

Miracle on 34thA relatively recent Pew survey says that 96% of American Christians and 81% of American non-Christians celebrate Christmas. Many of those Christmas-celebrating non-Christians argue that Christmas isn’t a specifically Christian holiday, since it has its origins in pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice. And they’re not wrong. Although Christmas is a religious event celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the actual date of Christmas Day and some of our favorite Christmas traditions are secular. I personally find it important to focus on the religious aspect of Christmas, but I am not opposed to following and enjoying the non-religious cultural traditions associated with Christmas. The most prominent of those traditions are those associated with Santa Claus. For the fun of it, and in observance of Saint Nicholas’s Day yesterday (December 6) I decided to do a little research on Santa’s history. This is what I found.

Santa’s Name

Saint NicholasThe name Santa Claus, which was first used in 1773, is a variant on Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, who was known in his own lifetime as Nikolaos of Myra. Nikolaos was born on March 15, 270 AD, to a well-off Christian Greek family living in a region of the Roman Empire that is part of modern Turkey. He was a bishop who is best known for his role in the First Council of Nicaea. There, he and other church leaders rejected the heresy of Arius, who taught that God the Son (that is, Jesus) is a creation of God the Father, rather than being co-eternal with God the Father as stated in the Nicene Creed. Legend has it that Nikolaos punched Arius in the face at the Council of Nicaea.

He also was known for giving gifts in secret. Supposedly, he would throw toys into children’s windows and leave coins in children’s shoes, which much later gave rise to the idea of Christmas stockings. The most famous story of the saint’s generosity tells of Nikolaos throwing purses full of gold into the house of a poor man who could not afford the dowries for his three daughters. Originally, the story stated that he threw the gold in through the window, but later versions referred to a chimney, although chimneys as we know them didn’t actually exist until the 13th century. In some tellings, Nikolaos tossed loose coins rather than a whole purse down the chimney, and they landed in the daughters’ stockings.

Saint Nicholas forensics

A modern forensic reconstruction of what Saint Nicholas probably looked like, based upon his heritage

After his death in 343, it became traditional to observe Saint Nicholas’s Day on December 6 by giving gifts. (For the record, Saint Nicholas’ life and death preceded the split between denominations and the establishment of the canonization process used by the Roman Catholic church.) It is believed that it was the sixteenth-century Reformation that transferred holiday gift-giving from early December to Christmas, largely at Martin Luther’s suggestion, in order to put the emphasis of the celebrations on Jesus. In fact, Santa’s alternate name, Kris Kringle, actually comes from the German Kristkindl, (“Christ Child”) which refers to Jesus himself.

Although Saint Nicholas was not by any means forgotten by history, his legacy was best preserved and his saint’s day most enthusiastically celebrated in Holland. St. Nicholas’s Day never was widely celebrated in America, yet St. Nicholas himself became a significant figure in American folklore in the early nineteenth century. The founding of the New York Historical Society sparked an interest in New York City’s largely Dutch heritage. Washington Irving’s humorous story Knickerbocker’s History of New York, written in 1809, followed by the New York Historical Society’s St. Nicholas Day dinner in 1810, brought St. Nicholas legends to the forefront of American Christmas traditions. Irving portrayed St. Nicholas as a Dutch stereotype, while the New York Historical Society went for historical accuracy.

Santa’s Beard

Odin

This is either Odin, Santa Claus, or Gandalf.

Nikolaos of Myra is usually pictured with a beard, as was typical of men of Greek heritage. Since he lived to be 73 years old, it is safe to say that his beard was white for at least part of his life. However, folklorists note that many aspects of Santa Claus, including his physical appearance, actually come from Norse mythology.

In particular, Santa is inspired by Jul, a persona assumed by the god Odin, also known as Woden. It is from Jul’s name that we get the words Yule and Yuletide, which was a pagan winter festival celebrated in much of Europe that later became blended with Christmas. Like Saint Nicholas, Odin was associated with gift-giving, and his gifts often came into people’s houses via the smokehole in the roof. The western European image of Father Christmas is a blend of the Saxon pagan figure of King Winter and the Viking depiction of Jul. Both Odin and King Winter  are always depicted with a long white beard. The round belly also comes from Odin and/or Thor. Stay tuned, there’s more on Odin coming later.

Santa’s Red Suit

This one is actually not so mysterious. The real Saint Nicholas’s bishop robe really was red. The white fur trim came from Father Christmas, who was originally the French, Christianized version of King Winter, but later found his way back into English culture. (An ancient British precursor to Father Christmas, who was actually associated with springtime, wore a green cloak, and the Norse character Jul/Odin usually wore blue.)

Merry Old Santa Claus

Merry Old Santa Claus

Essentially, Santa’s attire as we know it today is a blend of Saint Nicholas’s and Father Christmas’s costumes, but throughout history, Santa’s suit has appeared in many variations. Artist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was key to the codification of Santa’s appearance, especially thanks to his 1881 drawing “Merry Old Santa Claus” for Harper’s Weekly. Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover artwork from the 1920s was also significant. And once Coca Cola started using Santa Claus in advertisements in the early 1930s, Santa’s appearance was basically set in stone.

Flying Reindeer

Stories of Saint Nicholas often depict him riding a white horse, while Odin was said to ride an eight-legged gray horse named Sleipnir. However, Santa’s mode of transportation probably was inherited from Thor, who rode in a flying chariot pulled by two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjostr. (“Teeth-barer” and “teeth-grinder”) Since reindeer really were domesticated and used for pulling sleighs in eighteenth-century Scandinavia, and since non-Scandinavians came to view reindeer as mysterious creatures of the far North, it makes sense that TNight before Christmashor’s flying goats evolved into Santa’s flying reindeer.

It wasn’t until 1821 that Santa’s reindeer make an appearance in a known literary source. (Although Irving’s aforementioned Knickerbocker’s History of New York refers to a flying wagon that Santa uses to deliver his gifts) The lines “Old Santeclaus with much delight/ His reindeer drives this frosty night/ O’er chimneytops and tracks of snow/ to bring his yearly gifts to you” appear in an anonymously authored booklet with the not-so-catchy title A New Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III: The Children’s Friend.
The reindeer are first given names in the famous 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas, originally published anonymously but later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. (In recent decades, the poem has become better known as “The Night Before Christmas”) It’s worth noting that Donner and Blitzen were originally named Dunder and Blixem, Dutch for “thunder” and “lightning”, which calls Thor to mind. Rudolph was added in 1949 when Johnny Marks wrote the famous song based on a story by Robert L. May.

Milk and Cookies for Santa

milk and cookiesThe feel-good tradition of leaving milk and cookies for Santa seems to stem back to a Norse custom of leaving hay out for Odin’s horse Sleipner during Yuletide, in case Odin would pass by that way while on a hunting trip. When those Norse stories blended with the Dutch Sinterklaas traditions, it became the saint’s horse who was supposed to eat the hay. It was also said that Santa Claus would snack on the apples and cookies that were used to decorate Christmas trees before ornaments caught on in the 1890s. (For the record, Christmas trees were a purely German phenomenon prior to Queen Victoria, who brought the tradition to England. When her family was photographed by a Christmas tree in 1846, Christmas trees instantaneously became popular in Great Britain and North America.) The modern version of Santa’s milk and cookies probably came about during the Great Depression, when parents used it as a way to teach their children a lesson about sharing.

Letters to Santa

There is one known letter to the actual Saint Nicholas from about 1200, which reads, “St. Nicholas, patron of good children, I kneel for you to intercede. Hear my voice through the clouds and this night give me some toys. I want most of all a playhouse with some flowers and little birds.” Although that sounds surprisingly similar to modern-day letters to Santa, the idea didn’t really catch on for another few centuries.

letter to SantaIn the 1800s, some parents would write letters supposedly from Santa Claus, giving their children instructions about their behavior. Fanny Longfellow, wife of the famous poet, wrote in 1853, “You have picked up some naughty words which I hope you will throw away as you would sour or bitter fruit. Try to stop to think before you use any, and remember if no one else hears you, God is always near.”

It was only a matter of time before children thought to write letters back, especially since the postal system became faster and cheaper after the Civil War. Although some newspapers received and printed some of the letters, most of them were destroyed until 1913, when charity groups, volunteers, and even postal employees began responding to letters.

The Elves

Elves have played a role in European folklore for such a long time that it’s impossible to pinpoint the first elf stories. The nature of elves varies greatly depending upon the geographic context and time period of the source. They have been depicted as being similar to (or even synonymous with) fairies, demons, nymphs, gnomes, and dwarves. The idea of elves as miniature people with pointy ears, green clothes and hats,  and jolly dispositions comes from the Victorian era.

Knecht RuprechtSome seventeenth-century stories gave their versions of Santa Claus a sidekick, (although usually just one, rather than an entire race) such as the Scandinavian Tomte, Netherland’s Black Peter, or Germany’s Knecht Ruprecht, all of whom are less friendly and good-natured than the modern Christmas elves. Knecht Ruprecht, for example, was a fairly creepy figure who wore a brown robe with a pointed hood, walked with a limp, and beat children with a bag of ashes if they did not pray, which is probably the origin of the idea that bad children get coal in their stockings.

Santa Godeys

From Godey’s Lady’s Book

The elves really established themselves in Santa’s image in the nineteenth century. First, Moore’s 1823 poem called Santa himself “a right jolly old elf.” Then, in 1850, eighteen-year-old Louisa May Alcott, who would later write Little Women, wrote a long poem called “Christmas Elves”, although it was never published. Another poem, “The Wonders of Santa Claus” published in Harper’s Weekly in 1857, referred to elves “working with all their might”, and by the 1870s, the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book showed elves in their modern role, making toys for Santa Claus to deliver.

The North Pole

By the early 1800s, Santa Claus was associated with the far North, probably because it’s perpetually winter in that part of the world. The aforementioned artist Thomas Nast is credited with giving Santa Claus a home, as well as imagining Santa’s legendary workshop. At that time, explorers had not yet ventured to the North Pole, so that region had the added adventure of being steeped in mystery. In the 1920s, it was said that Santa actually lived in Finnish Lapland, because reindeer can’t graze at the North Pole, but popular culture has decided that it prefers the concept of Santa’s North Pole workshop.

Mrs. Claus

Santa_and_mrs_clausSanta’s wife is a relatively recent addition to Santa’s story. The first mention that such a person is supposed to exist was a short story written by James Rees in 1849. More details were added in subsequent stories and poems, most notably Katherine Lee Bates’ poem “Goody Santa Claus” from 1889. Goody was a title for the woman of the house that dated back to the middle ages, which is when Bates imagines Santa beginning his career. Since the end of the nineteenth century, Mrs. Claus has appeared in many tellings of the Santa story, and is generally depicted as an elderly, heavyset, grandmotherly lady who loves to make Christmas cookies. Different versions of the story give her different first names.

And that, in a nutshell, is the history of Santa Claus legends. Some aspects of Santa’s story and image have continued to change; for example, Santa’s presence in malls and department stores was a new development in the 1930s, and the Elf on the Shelf practice is only ten years old. But some of the most interesting parts of the Santa Claus legend have been around for centuries.

Thoughts on the Declaration of Independence

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Declaration of IndependenceOnce upon a time, on July 4, 1776, in the city of Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress officially finalized the final draft of the document known as the Declaration of Independence. This document, written by Thomas Jefferson and revised by the continental congress, stated that the United Colonies were “free and independent” and “absolved from all allegiance to the British crown,” on the basis of the accusations that the British government was oppressive. The words of this declaration are famous and familiar, especially the first sentence of the second paragraph, and they have often been quoted as the quintessential statement of American ideology. It is perhaps worth noting that the ideas expressed in this document are not original, and the Declaration of Independence is reminiscent of the Magna Carta in several ways. Technically, the Magna Carta is the more historically significant of the two documents. Even within the story of the birth of our country, there are other occasions that held more significance than the writing and signing of the Declaration. Other important dates include the official beginning of the Revolutionary War, (April 19, 1775) the end of the war (in October 1781) the Treaty of Paris formalizing the end of the war, (signed on September 3, 1783, and finalized when the ratified documents were exchanged on May 12, 1784) and the signing of the constitution which we still use. (September 17, 1787) But it is the Declaration of Independence that we remember as the true beginning of the United States of America.

A screenshot from the very end of the musical 1776

A screenshot from the very end of the musical 1776

And this raises the question: What if the Declaration of Independence had never existed? The historical comedy musical 1776 (which is a pretty reliable source, right?) gives the impression that the suggestion of writing such a declaration was made in order to put off the vote and win over more delegates who weren’t so enthusiastic about the issue of independency. If the Declaration of Independence hadn’t been written, if the colonies had declared independence only by waging war and not by writing a famous statement justifying it, what would the historical effect have been?

Would the constitution perhaps have been different if it hadn’t had the precedent of the Declaration of Independence? In particular, would the Bill of Rights have been necessary in order for the constitution to be ratified? Would things such as the freedom of religion, (Amendment I) the right to bear arms, (Amendment II) or the various rights concerning law enforcement trial, have needed to have a place in the constitution if the Declaration of Independence hadn’t been all about the existence and importance of rights? And if not, how long would it have taken for those rights to be officially included in the law, and what repercussions would that delay have had on subsequent historical events and cultural mindsets?

What about the Civil War? Would the South have tried to secede over the issue of states’ rights if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were only doing what their ancestors had done less than a century previously? (After all, in both cases, the conflict largely had to do with the geographical distance and cultural chasm been the governing authorities and the relevant sector of the population.) And would the abolishment of slavery perhaps taken a few more decades to bring about if slavery hadn’t been contrary to an important American historical document? After all, the Jim Crow laws existed until close to a century after the end of slavery. I think we can all agree that it’s good that slavery ended in our country a long time ago, but I think we can also agree that the end of slavery was not equivalent to the end of extreme racism, and that the Civil War did little to solve the latter of those two problems. If it hadn’t been for the precedents and principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence, could the Civil War have been avoided? And if so, would the Confederacy be a separate country or would it have remained part of the Union, but also retained its culture, including slavery, for a longer time?

Or was the Declaration of Independence simply a formality, and would the original American ideology have been exactly the same even without the document that first defined and explained it? Is the Declaration of Independence just a famous piece of paper that technically has no more influence than any of the older documents and writings that say much the same things? Was July 4, 1776 really one of the most important landmarks in American history, or was it just a regular day that we arbitrarily selected to observe as the birthday of our country? I guess there’s no way to know for sure, unless we went back in time and somehow prevented the Declaration of Independence from coming into existence. And I, for one, would like to highly discourage that course of action, because I’m in favor of the Declaration of Independence regardless of whether it was historically monumental or ultimately insignificant.

Stuff that Martin Luther Didn’t Say

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I am a Lutheran, but I usually don’t like hearing about Martin Luther in an academic context. For some reason, history hasn’t really remembered Martin Luther with a great degree of accuracy. In all fairness, the European history course that I took a little over a year ago did an adequate job of describing Lutheranism, although there was one time when my professor said, “For the sake of this discussion, let’s put Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli all into one category.” I highly disapprove of putting Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli all into one category, but at least in that particular class, the textbook and the professors never grossly misquoted Luther.

There was one time, though, that a student grossly misquoted Luther. The professor had asked how Luther believed that people attained forgiveness, and the class collectively answered that Luther said salvation came from faith. Then the professor asked how Luther defined faith, and there was an awkward silence. Half of the class kept their mouths shut because they were curious to hear what everyone else would say, and the other half of the class kept their mouths shut because they hadn’t done the reading and weren’t very familiar with Luther, so they had no idea what the answer was. Eventually, the boy in the back of the classroom who thought he knew everything spoke up and said that faith was when someone makes a personal decision to give their life to God. The professor gave him a look and asked, “Is that what Luther said?” Then the girl in the front of the classroom who thought she knew everything (that would be me) decided not to keep her mouth shut anymore, stuck her hand in the air and yelled something that was a fairly close paraphrase of Ephesians 2:8-9. (The aforementioned girl really should make sure she memorizes stuff better, because the bible shouldn’t be paraphrased when it could be quoted) In this particular case, the girl who thought she knew everything was right, but she did have quite an advantage there, since she was already a Lutheran.

Anyway, I think that the misunderstanding of Luther that I’ve heard most often is that he believed that the Bible is subject to personal interpretation and that personal faith has nothing to do with the church. There was a certain book I intended to quote here, but I have it packed up right now. Anyway, that book discussed Luther as just another Renaissance thinker, and implied that he believed that every Christian is supposed to flip through their Bible, privately choose their own favorite verses, and decide for himself (or herself) what he (or she) believes. In fact, if I recall correctly, that book actually said that Luther was against organized religion. If it didn’t say that, it was certainly implied.

That’s totally not what Martin Luther was saying. He disagreed with a lot of specific teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic church, but he had nothing against organized religion. This is what he had to say about church services:  “…A Christian has need of baptism, the word and the sacrament not as a Christian (for, as such, he has them already), but as a sinner. But, above all, the Order is for the simple and for the young folk who must daily be exercised in the Scripture and God’s Word, to the end that they may become conversant with Scripture and expert in its use, ready and skillful in giving an answer for their faith, and able in time to teach others and aid in the advancement of the kingdom of Christ. For the sake of such, we must read, sing, preach, write, and compose; and if it could in any wise help or promote their interests, I would have all the bells pealing, and all the organs playing, and everything making a noise that could.”- Martin Luther, The German Mass and Order of Divine Service, 1526.

Here is a picture of Martin Luther not saying, “Hey guys, the Bible means whatever you want it to mean! It’s all totally subjective, so who cares what anyone else believes?”

And it is also totally untrue that Martin Luther believed that the Bible was open to any and all interpretation. It’s true that he translated it into German so that more people could have access to it themselves, but that wasn’t so that they’d have the freedom to manipulate the meaning of certain texts by redefining certain words and phrases. Luther wanted to spread the objective truth; he didn’t want to subjectify truth. (Spellcheck tells me that subjectify isn’t a real word. I don’t care. It just goes to show that it wasn’t what Luther was trying to do, because if he was, it would absolutely be a real word now.) Anyway, you can tell that Martin Luther didn’t think that everyone was supposed to decide for themselves what to believe, because if he did, he wouldn’t have had so much to say about theology. Luther wrote loads of stuff; if you compare the quantity of his work to that of someone like Shakespeare, you’d have to conclude that Shakespeare probably spent most of his time sitting around and playing scrabble, except that scrabble hadn’t been invented yet.

The point of this is that people shouldn’t think of Martin Luther as some kind of 16th century hippie whose primary belief was that authority and structure are evil. Also, (and more importantly) people shouldn’t think of Jesus as some kind of 1st century hippie whose mission was to sit around holding a sign with some cliché about love and peace. But that can be the topic of a blog post for another day.